The Interior Department decided Friday to scrap a plan to swap part of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for land owned by the Irvine Co., a day after an Orange County congressman launched an all-out assault on the exchange.
The proposal, initially suggested by environmentalists who want to preserve the pristine canyons on Irvine Co. property near the Cleveland National Forest, was on the verge of becoming a political swamp, largely because of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's opposition.
Interior Department officials said their decision was partly based on the continuing controversy over who will decide the future use of El Toro--the County Board of Supervisors or another group that includes the South County cities nearest the base.
"In recent days . . . it has become clear that the consensus we had hoped to gain in support of our land exchange proposal is increasingly elusive," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a statement.
"We determined that in the current climate, our proposal might distract from reuse decisions that must be made on the ground. It is my hope that our decision will help clarify the issues which Orange County and affected cities must consider in drawing up a sound reuse proposal for the (base)."
The statement made no mention of Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who introduced legislation Thursday to stop the land swap and threatened congressional hearings.
The congressman continued his assault with a news conference in Orange County early Friday to whip up opposition to the swap, repeating his claim that it was a "sweetheart deal" for the Irvine Co. but a "rip-off" for taxpayers.
Under the proposal, the Interior Department would have turned over an estimated 850 acres on the perimeter of the base to the Irvine Co. in exchange for about 10,000 acres of the company's land near the Cleveland National Forest. The exact amount was to be based on a fair land appraisal.
A gleeful Rohrabacher called the Interior Department's decision "a great victory for the taxpayers."
"I think that this decision was made very quickly and it was precipitated by two words: 'congressional hearing,' " Rohrabacher said. "And, obviously, the scheme for swapping this land could not withstand the light of scrutiny. We were not just going to look at this--we were going to look at it with a magnifying glass. It didn't take a bloodhound to know that something stunk about this deal."
Officials at the Interior Department and the Irvine Co. repeatedly dismissed the congressman's assertions, arguing that the proposal was still in its early stages, would be based on land appraisals, and would not go through if the local community opposed it.
"There's no story behind the story," said Joseph L. Sax, counselor to Babbitt and the staff member in charge of the El Toro project. "There was no such deal . . . and there never was any such deal, and that's about all we can say . . . as clearly and as emphatically as possible."
Irvine Co. spokesman Larry Thomas said the development company supports the decision to abandon the land swap. "For our part, we are pleased that it's behind us because it's really not worth the grief to pursue it any further," he said.
"It was not (the Interior Department's) idea, it was not ours," Thomas said. "It was generated by the environmental community and it was creative. Having said that, we agree with (Babbitt's) conclusion and his judgment in withdrawing the proposal."
Environmental groups expressed disappointment.
Flossie Horgan, co-founder of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, said she was unhappy because her organization was hoping for a similar land exchange between the federal government and the Koll Co. to help preserve the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.
"I would have liked to have seen it go through," Horgan said. "I think that what's happening is big money interests are trying to turn back attempts made to preserve some of these really important places and species on this continent."
Meanwhile, Rohrabacher continued to press his idea of the Defense Department giving the El Toro property to the county, which could then sell it to the highest bidder to help work its way out of bankruptcy.
"The public officials who were going to let this rip-off slide through ought to be ashamed of themselves," Rohrabacher said. "Here Orange County is in the middle of a crisis and these public officials were going to let their buddies at the Irvine Co. make millions. People of Orange County should note who is and who is not watching out for the taxpayers."
Babbitt and other Interior Department officials stood firmly by the land exchange plan until Friday when they began discussing pulling the plug on the project after assessing the shaky political picture in Orange County, according to Sax.
Sax said that in addition to Rohrabacher's legislation, Interior officials read news reports that South County city officials were in Washington on Thursday, still fighting for decision-making authority over the future use of El Toro.
South County cities fear a commercial airport will be developed at El Toro, as dictated by Measure A, which was approved by voters in last November's election.
Rohrabacher, who strongly supports an El Toro airport, argued that the land swap would have affected airport development because one of the parcels involved in the proposal is at the end of one of the base's runways.
With the land swap needing approval of the local base planning authority, the political fight over the makeup of that agency added an extra layer of uncertainty, Interior Department officials said.
"From the first day the (Interior) Department expressed an interest in this land exchange, we saw it as an opportunity to boost conservation and try a new approach that would accelerate economic redevelopment at El Toro," Babbitt said in his statement Friday, adding that it also complemented the county's General Plan.
Babbitt said Interior will still seek to acquire about 1,080 acres at the base known as the Battery-Magazine area, which is an endangered species habitat.
Following discussions between the Irvine Co. and Interior Department officials, Sax said he telephoned the Defense Department and the Navy to let them know that the application for the land swap would be withdrawn.
Interior Department officials complained that the community was not given the opportunity to explore the complex plan, which Babbitt officially unveiled last month in Orange County.
"There are several people that have been very active in stirring up a lot more heat than light about what this proposal is all about," said Jay Ziegler, a spokesman for the Interior Department.